President Joe Biden nominated state Rep. Calvin Smyre to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, rewarding the longest-serving legislator in Georgia — and one of the president’s earliest allies in the South — with a diplomatic post.
The White House announced Wednesday that Smyre, 74, known in the Georgia Capitol as the dean of the House, is Biden’s pick for the job. If confirmed by the Senate, the retired Synovus banking executive will head to the Dominican Republic at a time when the island nation is confronted by new challenges.
“I’ve been in the Legislature for so long and it’s such a part of me. It’s a place that I love so dearly,” Smyre said. “But I’m deeply honored to be nominated by President Biden to be the ambassador to the Dominican Republic. And if confirmed I look forward to advancing the interests of the United States in the Dominican government.”
First elected in 1974 at the age of 26, the Columbus Democrat emerged as one of the most powerful members of the Georgia House when it was dominated by Democrats. The 74-year-old was the first Black lawmaker in Georgia to be appointed a governor’s floor leader and to serve as the state party’s chair.
Skilled at relationship-building, Smyre was at the center of the negotiations when then-Gov. Roy Barnes decided to pull down Georgia’s 1956 flag and its Confederate emblem. As chairman of the House Rules Committee in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he had a say in every significant piece of legislation under the Gold Dome.
Since the GOP won control of the chamber in 2005, Smyre has cemented his role as a Statehouse power broker who quietly hashes out agreements across party lines between feuding politicians and helps neutralize some of the thorniest debates.
Then-Gov. Nathan Deal partnered with Smyre in 2014 to pave the way for a statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to be placed on the grounds of the Georgia Capitol. Last year, he helped broker an agreement for a bipartisan hate-crimes law that had stalled for nearly two decades.
As Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia House leader, recently said, “you cannot make a decision in the Capitol without consulting the dean of the House.”
House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, was among many state officials applauding Biden’s decision to tap Smyre.
“As a beneficiary of his wisdom and counsel, I consider it an honor to have served with him,” said Ralston. “And while I will miss seeing my friend everyday, our nation will be better for his service as our ambassador.”
Credit: Bob Andres
Credit: Bob Andres
Smyre’s roots in Democratic politics run deep. He was a deputy to President Jimmy Carter during his 1980 reelection bid, traveling to Kentucky in a Buick stumping for the campaign. He co-chaired Bill Clinton’s Georgia campaigns in 1992 and 1996, and he was a key Al Gore deputy in 2000.
In 2001, Smyre was appointed chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, the first Black to fill that role. He served as a Democratic elector in nine of the past 11 presidential contests and was one of Biden’s earliest well-known supporters in Georgia.
Over 47 legislative sessions, Smyre has also become a mentor to dozens of politicians and staffers from both sides of the aisle and a fierce advocate for his party’s causes. He was particularly proud earlier this year in helping to rally Democrats to vote as a bloc against a rewrite of state election law that imposes new obstacles to voting.
He said in an interview that he plans to take part in the special legislative session later this year when lawmakers are set to redraw the political maps. If confirmed by the Senate, in a vote that could take place next year, he will enter his new job at a volatile time.
The U.S. has long enjoyed warm relations with the Dominican Republic. But the island nation’s leaders are encouraging Americans to play a more assertive role in neighboring Haiti, where the recent assassination of the president has triggered a growing humanitarian and political crisis.
Smyre said he’s looking forward to the new challenge.
“As a longtime businessman, I’ll bring my background and experience to continue the significant work with an important economic partner in the Caribbean,” he said.